Space for dreams: On ISRO’s new chief

Under a new leadership, ISRO will need to continue innovation

January 14, 2022 12:02 am | Updated 10:00 am IST

This year, the harvest festival brings a change at the helm for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), with S. Somanath who heads the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) at Thiruvananthapuram taking over as its chairperson . He succeeds K. Sivan, who also came to head ISRO after having led the efforts at VSSC. Mr. Somanath is the third consecutive chairperson of ISRO to have a master’s degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Science. The organisation thus sees a continuation of the recent trend of being led by engineers. It is to be seen if Mr. Somanath’s specific expertise in leading innovations in rocket engines, the cryogenic engine, for instance, will shape future developments at ISRO. If earlier the Mars Orbiter Mission , which broke the records for expense by costing just ₹7 per kilometre, and Chandrayaan 2, had kept anticipation high, the new chairperson will oversee the unfurling of the human space flight programme — Gaganyaan. Another long-awaited mission is Aditya-L1. This has morphed and grown into what will be India’s grandest investment in space dedicated to science, specifically, solar physics. The aim to take a space observatory to the Lagrangian point one (L-1) to study the Sun offers yet another frontier for ISRO to breach.

Mr. Somanath will also lead a transition in the stance of ISRO towards privatisation. Until a few years ago, ISRO had remained largely preoccupied with deriving socio-economic benefits from space technology and applications that were used by the Government of India and some international collaborations. Of course, these ventures had a strong industry participation, but privatisation reforms have been pursued hard recently. The first announcement came in 2019, with the NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) being floated in March, and the commercial arm of ISRO was more firmly established. Apart from building and launching satellites, the company will provide launch services, build customised launch vehicles, provide services of Earth observation and communication through satellites and also transfer technology to Indian industry. As a sequel to the establishment of NSIL came the announcement of the creation of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center, in June 2020 — a channel through which non-governmental private enterprises can carry out space activities. The country’s imagination to get up to speed with other competing nations would be put to the test under the new leadership. ISRO and its sister organisations have much to offer in the form of spin-offs and technology transfer. Underlying these questions is the anticipation which stems from the very nature of space science; it not only contributes to immense learning and perspective but also unfolds the very horizon, enhancing universal feelings of oneness.

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